Stubble Burning: How regenerative farming, biochar and generous financing can solve many problems in one go

Stubble Burning: How regenerative farming, biochar and generous financing can solve many problems in one go

From air pollution to degrading soil nutrients to depleting groundwater levels, North India is facing ecological disasters on multiple fronts. This is where India needs to make the shift to regenerative farming sooner than later. It will also help both the soil and the air if, instead of stubble burning, farmers are taught techniques to produce biochar.

It’s the soot season in Delhi. As grey smoke clouds begin to rise from paddy fields in north India,  we are reminded of our collective failure to address the ecological-industrial disharmony plaguing India.

Many of us are quick to blame stubble burning paddy farmers in Punjab and Haryana for this smoky problem. They are only partly correct as historical data suggests that stubble burning at its worst contributes only 6 percent to our air pollution problem. Most pollutants come from automobiles and industry, not the farmers.

Automotive Fixes For Agrarian Problem

Despite this, a strong push was made by the government to fix the agrarian side of the problem. In recent years, the government listening to the automobile sector introduced the “happy seeder” programme. The happy seeder is a no-till planter which is attached to a tractor to cut the stubble, mulch it in the field and simultaneously sow new seeds.

The programme had many setbacks including limited access, inflation, incompatible technology, etc. Despite the government loosening its purse strings, the stubble burning did not reduce nor did air pollution. After a few years, one can assume that concerned policy makers have corrected course too or at least are waiting for suggestions to improve the national clean air programme.

For years now the clean air programme budgets have been underutilised, and if the government is serious in fixing the agrarian side of the problem new policy measures can be undertaken that will not only ameliorate the stubble burning problem but has the potential to help fix the ecological decay in rural India.

Think Regenerative Farming

The first step toward this reconnection is regenerative farming. There are a whole new range of techniques of nature-based farming – from biodynamic to zero budget to organic farming. And given the track record of regenerative farmers in Punjab, these offer a sustainable solution towards poison-free food and no stubble smoke. However, income support, marketing links and organic certification needs to be provided through the underutilised PMPKVY (Pradhan Mantri Paramparaghat Krishi Vikas Yojna).

Organic farmers in Punjab and Haryana are leading the fight against stubble burning, as most of them have diversified into other crops, while the paddy-growing ones grow Basmati and other indigenous varieties. The straw or stubble of these native seeds is used for cattle fodder, and hence not wasted on the field. The government can have a special programme for procurement of organic paddy from Punjab, in this way farm incomes and ecologically can both be saved.

As Punjab produces about 12 million metric tonnes of paddy each year, a small portion of it is consumed within the state. Most of the 12 million tonnes is produced using agri-chemicals – fertilisers, pesticides, etc and is a great stress factor on north India’s water resources. The government can offer price support per quintal for ecologically produced rice.

A vast participatory guarantee system for regenerative auditing can be deployed using FPOs and farm organisations to ensure agri-chemicals are not being used on the farms. We will also greatly reduce our national fertilisers bill.

Organic farming can produce ample quantities of food, even at large scale. The US organic sector has demonstrated high efficiency and it is small-time organic farmers who are promoting biodiversity and boosting nutrition per acre.

However, a larger programme may be required in India to procure more regeneratively produced crops. Through this programme government market yards can grade and also procure organic lentils to paddy cheaply for the PDS system, it may create a new market for organic products in north India.

Mandi-based price floors or MSP can be introduced for cushioning the shift from chemical farming to organic farming for farmers. The government can further through financial incentives draw more farmers into organic farming and offer DBTs for ecological services. Through this ecological income support, our government can keep farmers and the bullies at the WTO both happy.

Biochar Instead of Stubble Burning

Now at the agro-industry and village industry level, the government immediately needs to look towards biochar (lightweight black residue, made of carbon and ashes – a form of charcoal – obtained from the thermochemical conversion of biomass in an oxygen-limited environment).

Now how is biochar and stubble burning connected? Paddy straw that is inedible for cattle are left out in the fields and eventually gets burnt. Now biochar is produced when certain organic matter like paddy straw are burnt in a controlled burn. Biochar throughout the world has been used as a soil amender and has huge potential to restore decaying soils and prevent land degradation.

Punjab ranks very high on the soil degradation chart, and by promoting biochar-based village level industries through financial incentives for farmers and biochar manufacturers to process the paddy straw within the villages or block, the government can kill two birds with one stone.

At a larger level, industrial crop varieties have disrupted the natural cycle and hence the paddy straw is no longer well-integrated and every season is a waste product. By either moving towards native seeds and indigenous paddy varieties farmers can re-enter the natural cycle, or else the government can have a short-term measure to create a new biochar ecosystem that can recycle paddy straw stubble for healing the soils and generating employment at the same time.

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